The menorah of Chanukah, sometimes called the chanukiah, has its roots in the menorah of the Temple. While there are many halakhot (laws) regarding the appearance and structure of the biblical menorah, Rashi, the great French commentator, points to a most remarkable halachic feature. Regarding the instruction to arrange the lamps so that they will be lit “towards the menorah” (Bamidbar 8:2), Rashi explains this to mean that all the lamps should point towards the middle light.
The Italian sage and physician Rav Obadiah Seforno, in his masterful commentary on the Torah, suggests that this is to teach us that the right-wingers and left-wingers need to lean towards the middle. While both are completely dedicated to Torah and its tradition, the right-wingers, i.e. those who are busy with eternal life and learning Torah, need to know that without the left-wingers, those who occupy themselves with the affairs of the mundane world, Judaism will not succeed. At the same time, the left-wingers have to understand that without those who occupy themselves with the study of Torah, their worldly occupation would lack the opportunity of sanctification. Only in a combined effort, symbolized by the middle light, will there be balance as the Torah and Judaism requires. This is based on the talmudic principle that “if not for the leaves, the grapes could not exist” (Chulin 92a).
The great Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch, known for his philosophy of “Torah Im Derech Eretz” (Torah and worldly occupation), and perhaps too much of a religious apologist for our times, comments on Yaacov’s final blessings to his children:
“The nation that is to descend from him (Yaakov) is to be in its external relations a single unit, and internally a Kehal Goyim, a united congregation of many kinds of people and professions. Each tribe is to represent a special type of person. The people of Yaakov who, as Israel, are to reveal to the world the directive power of God penetrating and conquering everything that is earthly in human beings, is, therefore, not to show as being in any way one-sided, but, as a model nation, shall present in a nutshell the most varied appearance of all different characteristics. In its tribes, martial nations as well as merchant ones, as well as scientific and scholarly ones, etc. are all to be represented. Thus, the fact is to be made clear to the world that the devotion and sanctification of human life in the bond with God through His law is not dependent on a condition to any special calling in life or national characteristic, but that the whole of mankind, with all its diversity, is called on to accept the one common conception of God as taught by Israel and so from all the different individual and national characteristics of mankind into the United Kingdom of God.” (Bereshith 35:11-12, translation by Isaac Levy.)
It is in the concept of “Israel” represented by the people of Israel that all mankind needs to find its inspiration and its purpose. The Jewish people’s history is heilsgeschichte, redemptive history. As Martin Buber writes, “It is the true history of the world” since all that happens and needs to happen somehow takes place and must take place within this small nation (1). Not for the sake of its own interests, but for the sake of the entire world, inspiring them to realize the need for all human endeavors to be dedicated to the Higher Goal. This is a bold statement, perhaps even a disturbing one, but it cannot be denied that Israel’s history indeed includes a meta-existence, which constantly defies the normal criteria of what history permits. Through the Bible, Israel becomes atypical. It pulls all of mankind’s history into its own, sanctifies it and then sends it back to all of mankind. It forces us, perhaps against our will, to admit that Jews are “not be counted among the nations” as the gentile prophet Bilam said (Bamidbar 23:9)
And still, in Israel all religion is history. There is no Judaism without Avraham and Moshe, without Mitzrayim and Sinai. It is deeply grounded in a down-to-earth reality in which even all-too-human trivialities have a place. It is not an abstract proposition to be apprehended simply by some esoteric wisdom and mystical illumination. It denies all attempts to run away from the human task to build the world in the here and now. Judaism is a faith which is enacted as history; it is not to be experienced, understood or communicated apart from that history.
Judaism is very physical. It claims that the Torah was given to man in his totality, demanding of him not to abandon or neglect the natural human inclinations and needs, but to embrace his humanity in its fullness. The earth and bodily life are the very ground of halachic reality. In Judaism there is no homo religiosus with his tendency to escape the world, as in some other religions. So there is no physical task or occupation that is left out of its concern. Science, technology, business, art, music are all part of the religious experience. They are not just a means to make an honest living and to foster progress. They are all Torah. In “Israel” all these activities are sanctified and mankind, though often unaware of this, becomes part of the Torah experience.
For the Jewish religious community to deny this is to embarrass Judaism. For religious Jewry to live an authentic Jewish life, it will have to teach its children that our true task as Jews is our universal mission to be an example of the balance between the spiritual and the physical. This is the message of the middle light on the biblical menorah towards which all the other lights are to point.
(1) Martin Buber, Hasidism in Religion, Hasidism, Philosophical Library: New York, 1948, p.199